Forgotten Authors – Holly Roth: The Mask of Glass (1957)

I love finding a mystery writer that I have never come across before, which as you dig deeper into this ol’ world of classic crime fiction is sometimes easier than you think. It’s even better to come across one in a second hand bookshop and, for some whimsical reason, to be taken with the title, the cover or description (though I try not to read those too much) and decide to go with it. So begins my relationship with Holly Roth.

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Very little information exists online about Roth (any experts on her work out there I would love to hear from you), but what I gleaned about her from this 1957 paperback of The Mask Of Glass and other online sources is very interesting. Roth was a highly intelligent woman of the world, born in Chicago and moving between America, England and Europe, she finally resided in New York. Beginning her career as a model she left that for newspaper and magazine work before settling on the mystery and suspense field, publishing 12 novels under three different names and writing a number of television and film mysteries. Her works were serialised in magazines and very much are part of the pulp genre, although with a GAD feel and twist.

Roth composed extremely tightly plotted stories and The Mask of Glass is no exception. Clocking in at only 154 pages and containing really only two main characters this is a pacy, contained piece. The Independent in their forgotten authors series ‘Invisible Ink’, described Roth’s thrillers as ‘high-concept before the term had been created’, and The Mask Of Glass fits that bill perfectly:

Jimmy Kennemore of the US Army Counter-Intelligence Corps, wakes up in hospital to find himself unable to move, bandaged and cast all over, his head wrapped up with a few spaces for eye holes. He has been saved by a Doctor Steinfeld (‘Doc’) a long term family friend, but the Doc doesn’t know what has happened and by the looks of it neither does Jimmy. As he slips in and out of consciousness Jimmy is forced to mentally reconstruct the last few days events, that lead to the intense night of violence he experienced. As each piece of the story unravels it builds into an exploration of corruption, murder and the haunting nature of a shifting identity, as Kennemore decides what action he can take in the wake of this terror.

I find it very frustrating when reviewers say things like ‘I wasn’t sure at first but then it turned out to be brilliant’, but in this case this really sums up my experience with this book. As you begin the writing is deceptively sparse, extremely tight, with absolutely no fuss, and therefore quite quiet in how it initially comes across. But it’s this restraint of description, plot and dialogue that carries you as the reader into a intriguing and refreshing space, and the simplicity in her writing allows the tension to be turned up to high when it comes; something that Roth was also a deft hand at. We follow Kennemore the entire time, each chapter only serves to advance the story, with very little deviation away from stepping forward.

There are some lovely ideas in terms of counter intelligence mixed with detection style deductions and reveals. The cypher and solution to the six pages of stencilled black dots found in a stolen file, and Kennemore’s ability to decipher telephone numbers by listening to the clicks on the dial through the wall are satisfying examples.

The whole book had that feeling (can you relate to this?) where something about it gets under your skin and when you are not reading about it you are thinking about it. Not so much a ‘I must know whats going to happen’ but just something about the precise and stripped back context she has created makes me want to get back to that world and to inhabit it again.

My one objection to Roth’s style is her desire for naturalism in dialogue. The dialogue is not ‘novelistic naturalism’ but reads like actual dialogue you would say or hear, and therefore can be so natural it becomes obvious, unneeded or stilted. But on the other hand this ‘slice of life’ style works well in setting up the atmosphere of New York, and the little instances in cafes, taxi’s and sidewalks serve the narrative well.

Roth came to a tragic and mysterious end herself. In 1964 she was sailing on and living aboard a ketch with her Czechoslovakian husband Joseph Franta, when a large ship hit the boat and sailed on into the night. Roth fell from the side and her body was never recovered. The strangest coincidence here is that in Roth’s book Operation Doctors, written just two years before her death, a woman falls from a boat and loses her memory. Frank Roth, Holly’s brother, a rare coin dealer, said at the time of her disappearance that he hadn’t seen her since she got married in 1960. The Mask Of Glass, written in published in 57, is dedicated to Frank ‘with love’.

The Invisible Ink piece closes with this notable passage:

In the Fifties, female suspense writers proved very popular, and Roth was compared with Mary Stewart, Charlotte Armstrong and Margaret Millar, frequently tackling the kind of Cold War-influenced subjects that have now become a strictly male province. Her books were critically overlooked at the time, and if the plots seem far-fetched, her ability to turn up the tension is unquestionable.

I’m looking forward to reading another Roth, and although much more in the pulp/thriller genre, there was a lot about this little book that won me over, I hear as well that others count Shadow Of A Lady as her best work so I hope to find a copy of that soon.

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A little after thought, I am yet to read any Earl Stanley Gardeners ‘The DA…’ series, but from what I have read from the rest of the GAD community, this tight and sparse beauty of writing and plotting that I see in Roth could be said to be a similar experience in reading Gardener? Many of the ‘DA’ books clock in around the 150 page mark as well. Any thoughts anyone?

 

 

 

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Helen McCloy: Cue for Murder (1942) – Meta-narratives and scripts for death

‘The murder mystery at the Royalty Theatre was solved through the agency of a house fly and a canary. The fly discovered the chemical evidence that so impressed the jury at the trial, but the canary provided a psychological clue to the murderer’s identity before the murder was committed. Basil Willing is still troubled by the the thought that it might have been prevented if he had read the riddle of the canary sooner.’

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So opens Cue For Murder by Helen McCloy, her 5th Doctor Basil Willing mystery, and in my opinion an unsung treasure from the Golden Age of detection. As always I will be talking about elements of plot, character and set up, there will be no solution spoilers, but if you aim to read this book fresh then come back after reading!

Dr Basil Willing is a psychiatrist working for the DA’s office, but is more than helpful on the crime scene when things get complicated. McCloy uses Willing as a vehicle to explore the psychology of the criminal at work, asking why they would behave in a certain way, and looking at what the crime says about the kind of person who could have perpetrated it. And in Cue For Murder, Willing is presented with a psychological mine field.

A re-staging of the infamous nihilistic play Fedora by Victorien Sardou is taking place at the Royalty Theatre in New York. Willing knows the costume designer for the play, Pauline, and receives a ticket for the opening night. But during the first act tragedy strikes. At the back of the stage set there are a set of double doors opening onto a little alcove. When these doors a flung open during the play they reveal a corpse, lying prostrate and still, staring with dead eyes out to the crowd. This corpse however, is the actors role, and part of the corpse is usually played by a friend of the cast, made up with corpse paint to look as dead as possible. But when the curtain drops for the end of the first act the actor doesn’t move, and when the bed sheets are pulled back, the man has been stabbed in the chest with a surgical blade.

There were only four actors on stage, and only three of them approached the alcove. But when examined, none of them know the man, assuming each other had invited him to play the part. The problem then becomes how a murderer managed to stab the unidentified corpse in front of a full audience, but also why they went to such lengths.

What I love about this set up, and how McCloy uses it, is the growing layers of meta-writing she pulls off. Shortly before the play begins, Willing finds himself backstage, seeing everything from the other side. The back of the luxurious room as appearing from the audience, revealed to be chip board and stage paint. Willing then comes through a door into the audience which McCloy calls ‘the frontier between reality and illusion’. This frontier becomes the meta-narrative of the whole book.

This is further emphasised when the script is analysed, and acts as a literal script for the murderers actions, revealing the multiple moments when each of them could have done it (literally their ‘cue for murder’), a constant blurring between the fake and the real. This then leaks into every aspect of the case, with chief inspector Foyle reflecting in chapter four: ‘Its a world of make-believe–false names and false faces! How can I tell which one of these is playing a part?’ And this ‘playing a part’ is what Willing tries to untangle and decode, leading to wonderful observations about character, motive and identity. We see the struggles of fame and money, actors on the way up or the way down, and the hidden desires for appreciation.

And on top of all of all of this is the maddening clue of the canary, which Willing is certain relates to the whole case. A burglar broke into a knife-grinding shop, just next to the theatre, but didn’t steel anything, but only freed the owners canary from it’s cage:

 ‘Why risk incurring the severe penalties for burglary by breaking into a shop without stealing anything? Why prolong the risk by lingering on the premises to free a canary from it’s cage?’ 

The canary becomes a touch stone throughout the whole book, and it’s presence haunts the crime, revealing more each chapter.

The thing that most impressed me most over all about this book was why the killer went to such lengths to murder someone on stage, and what is says about their psychology. And with that the motive is an absolute punch in the stomach when all is revealed.

Criticisms? I could say that the book gets off to a slow start (but that might just have been me) and the whole thing clocks in at longer than your usual GAD novel, so could have been cut down in places, but I’m not going to fault McCloy for that really. Because, as with my thought in my last review on Christianna Brand, McCloy is another writer who seems simply to love the process of writing, and loves filling the pages with deft observation after deft observation.

There were some thoughts from a panel discussion at the Bodies From the Library conference at the British Library earlier this year, in response to a question about why so many women flourished in the detective writing genre. The panelist said that so many women became writers of detective fiction because in some ways ‘it wasn’t taken seriously’, therefore that women were ‘allowed’ to write this sort of thing. This now deeply outdated world view, in a wonderful subversion of itself, of course gave women the agency of writing which they used to excel, express and subvert that very claim, and you can see and feel McCloy using that to it’s absolute maximum. Giving us a deeply intelligent, rich novel, with quotes from classical literature, psychological and philosophical study and historical references at every turn, with a few satirical comments about ‘novel’s written by men’ thrown in too.

The ever knowledgeable Mike Grost on his writing about McCloy said that this was her most famous book for a time, and that McCloy’s works from this point only got better and better. So I’m excited for the next McCloy and exploring her oeuvre post 1942. This post 1942 list contains of course Through a Glass Darkly, which is one of the best and most creepy impossible crime novels ever, and if you haven’t read it yet go and read right now.

 

 

John Dickson Carr: The Men Who Explained Miracles (1963) Part 2

The Men Who Explained Miracles, is a collection of shorter stories and uncollected works from the master of the impossible crime John Dickson Carr. In my last post I focussed on the last piece in the book, a twisty novella entitled All In A Maze. For this one I will move to the eclectic range of tales that make up the first part of this collection.

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There are 6 shorts in total, divided into three sections: Department of Queer Complaints contains two uncollected Colonel March stories. The blustering ex-service man tasked with explaining the more troubling crimes of Scotland Yard. Under the heading Dr Fell Stories we are presented with two shorts from the infamous hat and caped detective of some of Carr’s most famous novels. And Secret Service Stories presents us with two stand alone, non-series pieces, the first set in France and the second an historical thriller.

This all makes for a diverse range of works, spanning a number of years and containing almost every detective or type of story Carr dealt with in his career. In order of appearance:

1- William Wilson’s Racket – Colonel March

The first story in the collection considers a curious problem that the socially distinguished Lady Patricia Mortlake presents to the Department of Queer Complaints. For the past month her husband, the Right Hon. Francis Hale, has started to display strange behaviour. Every time he sees a certain advert in a news paper, he seems to go ‘off his head’. The advert only appears in the best papers and simply reads ‘William and Wilhelmina Wilson, 25Oa, Piccadilly’, nothing more. The company and the names are not listed anywhere. Lady Patricia takes in upon herself to visit the address and upon bursting into the office she finds her husband sitting in a swivel chair, a young red head on his lap, arms around his neck. After shouting and slamming the door, she waits by the main door, expecting him to come and apologise, but he doesn’t come out. When she goes back to the room to investigate, the red head and her husband have gone, leaving no trace. There are no other exits, so Frances Mortlake seems to have escaped from a watched room, and stranger still, he seems to have left all his clothes behind.

It’s just a brilliant set up! Unique to the March stories are where the impossibility itself is totally left field and also funny. The solution is a as unique as the set up, and although audacious, and not groundbreaking, all the clues are there. The story also ends with a nice little twist, leaving you wondering if all was what it seemed.

2 – The Empty Flat – Colonel March

The chilling set-up for the second Colonel March short is one of the best from the collection. Douglas Chase cannot concentrate on his late night studies as someone seems to be blaring a radio a full volume in the flat below. He heads down to speak to the owner, a Miss Kathleen Mills, also studying late night, who presumes Douglas is the one blaring the radio. They both realise that it is coming from the locked and empty flat next to Kathleen’s. No one has taken the flat on, as it is said to cause strange things to happen to it’s tenants. Douglas manages to find a way into the empty flat through the service hatch. Standing in pitch darkness he finds the radio blaring in a dark and empty flat in the room beyond. Entering the room turns it off, leaving the flat in silence. Douglas leaves thinking that it is empty, but the next morning, some building workers find the body of barrister Mr Arnot Wilson, crumpled up in the bedroom. The doctor in attendance declares that Wilson has died of cardiac and nervous shock, caused by fright.

There are two interested things to note from this tale. Firstly there is very similar opening character relationship to the start of The Case of the Constant Suicides (you’ll see what I mean when you read it). And secondly the solution to the frightening to death of Wilson, is the exact same solution, but to a different type of crime (not a frightening to death), from one of Carr’s novels. This novel was printed before this short story, but only picked up by penguin after the short story was published, which makes me wonder if Carr only re-used the solution it because the book wasn’t as popular until penguin took it up so he felt he could? (Thought on a postcard please).

3 – The Incautious Burglar – Dr Fell 

A particularly beautifully written Fell story, this short considers the problem of three super valuable paintings, two Rembrants and a Van Dyck, owned by successful businessman Marcus Hunt. There are some curious questions surrounding the paintings. Why has Hunt just moved them out of secure storage to a poorly locked room? And why has he left them in blaring sun light, which might bleach out. It is suggested that he want’s them ‘stolen’ so he can claim the insurance money.  The only problem with that suggestion, he hasn’t insured any of them for a single penny.

That night, the worst happens. A break-in wakes one of Hunt’s house guests who rushes down to find a masked burglar in a pool of blood and glass, stabbed in the chest. When the body is examined, it turns out to be Marcus Hunt, the owner of the paintings himself. The question then, why would the owner stage a break in to steal his own paintings, even though they are not insured, and who would kill him in the act?

A really nice clue about the scratches on a tea set and the width of the blade leads Dr Fell to the solution, which has a lovely misdirection. Each element is perfectly placed.

4 – Invisible Hands – Dr Fell

A lonely cliff top beach house in North Cornwall (which feels very much like the house of She Died A Ladyis the setting for the second of the Fell shorts. Society beauty Brenda Lestrange is found strangled on ‘King Arthurs Chair’, a natural rock formation in the shape of a throne, surrounded by untouched sand. And of course, there are no footprints leading up to the body or away part from her own. The solution to this one is mad, but could work, (although I think I had a better one in mind). But to Carr’s credit he makes a secondary piece of misdirection work well to solidify how the killer could get away with it.

5 – Strictly Diplomatic – Monsieur Lespinasse 

Over-worked businessman Andrew Dermot is forcibly signed off by his doctor to a spa in the south of France. Telling the Doc that he hasn’t got time to fall in love, the ironic and inevitable happens, he meets Betty Weatherill. All is going like a dream, when Betty suddenly declares she has to leave the spa that very night, and won’t explain why. Getting up from her chair she walks to the ‘arbour’ at the back of the hotel, an arched tunnel of thick flowers and vines that leads to the main building. Dermot watches her go in, but reliable witnesses on the other side say that she never came out the other end.

Again, as with All In A Maze this is a tale where Carr manages to work in the threat of spies, international espionage, double clues, secret identities, the question of reliable witnesses and an impossible situation all into about 15 pages. The solution isn’t mind blowing, but a solid entry, and again a unique location and plot.

6 – The Black Cabinet – Stand Alone Historical Psychological/Thriller

This one is a total surprise in the collection, a tale which travels through the moral and emotional struggle of revolutionary Nina Bennet, as she works out a plan to assassinate Napoleon Bonaparte. There is a brilliantly written opening scene where we see things through the eyes of a young Nina, and how her hatred of the Emperor seeded itself. We are then brought up to the present day as the clock ticks down to the assassination. Nina and her Aunt Maria, whose radical leanings have slipped away over years, battle out Nina’s decision in fraught discussion, until another strange and unexpected historical character enters the scene. Not a mystery here, or impossibility, but this one is reflective of Carr’s historical style of work, where fast paced writing explores one persons relationship to another in power.

What I found most impressive about this short, which again shows of Carr’s early feminist/pro-women out look, is that the whole story is about and told from the perspective of three strong women characters. All of whom are complex, wildly different and not parodied. There is even an interesting discussion in this story about love and beauty verses hate and revenge.

So overall, a wildly different set of stories, with some solid entries that will be loved by Carr fans for sure. This isn’t Carr’s strongest material by far, but you can see these are stories where he was stretching and expanding the form, trying things that he might not have done else where. And from that perspective, seeing a master of plot and form experiment is a fun and insightful experience.

My question in part one was why and how this collection was pulled together. My thought is that as this was published the year Carr had his stroke, and was then limited to the use of one arm, that publishers still wanted to publish something. So they brought together this mixed collection of works that weren’t as of yet on the market, so that they could still put something out? That’s my guess anyhow, but if you have anymore historically accurate knowledge than that do let me know!

Twain, Hemmingway, Dickens: Crime Writers?

Sometimes I come across a book so curious I have to pick it up. Ellery Queen’s Book of Mystery Stories is just that book. Its very existence is so fascinating I had to write about it.

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Most followers of this blog will know who Ellery Queen is, but if not let me introduce you. Ellery Queen was the moniker of crime fiction writers, editors and anthologists Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. They wrote some 30 novels and short story collections featuring their main character, also named Ellery Queen, a writer and amateur detective who helps his police inspector father solve complex cases. They also had a huge impact on editing and anthologising crime.

This anthology originally published in 1952 under the title ‘The Literature of Crime’ seeks to show, in Queen’s words, that ‘few people realise – few critics, too – that nearly every world-famous author, throughout the entire history of literature has tried his hand at writing the detective or crime story’.

And the list of names in this book is extraordinary. Queen brings together short crime stories from none other than Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, Aldous Huxley, Pearl S. Buck, Walter de la Mare, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck and Fannie Hurst to name but a few.

What made me pick it up, was the foreword by Queen, in which there are some fascinating facts. For example in discussing Mark Twain Queen says ‘Twain’s writings in the detective-crime field are almost wholly unappreciated’ explaining that Twain wrote over 6 detective stories through his career, and that he was ‘the first writer in history to see the plot possibilities of fingerprints… Yes, both in the short story and the novel… as a means of criminal identification.’ And in Huckleberry Finn, often ranked as one of the top 100 books of all time, Twain wrote in the lady detective Mrs Judith Loftus, who uses the gender norms of the time as to uncovering Finn’s disguise. 

And most fascinatingly: ‘did you know what was book Mark Twain was writing at the time of his death? A mystery novel, entitled Jim Wheeler, Detective.’ Truly wonderful stuff. The unfinished Jim Wheeler manuscript is housed in the New York Public library having never been published, but I guess it would be a frustrating read having no ending.
What I find interesting about this collection is that it shows the complexities of the crime form were not snubbed by some of the world’s most famous authors.